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East High School Begins Year Festively, with Challenges

Teachers, volunteers, drummers, and cheerleaders all line up to greet students on their first day at East High School. The school is now being run in a partnership with the University of Rochester, after years low attendance and graduation rates and poor test scores.
Smiles, cheers, hugs, and high fives greet kids on their way in the door. Adults say they want it to have a red carpet feel.

Shaun Nelms, who was recently named Superintendent of East High School, says the balloons and cheers are meant to show the students that they’re cared for, "It’s really essential that our students have hope in the future, that Rochester becomes a place that they cherish and that they have fond memories of. And right now, for students who are not graduating and students who are caught up in a life of crime, Rochester does not create fond memories, and we have to change that for them in this community."

Nelms is charged with the daunting task of turning around the chronically underperforming school in a neighborhood that has struggled with poverty, crime, and racial segregation. He says the school has to meet the challenges that the students face. "If the formula for success is having two loving parents, having middle class income, then our students will never be successful, many of them," he says.

Nelms says his staff cannot accept that fate for their students. They’ve got to come up with other solutions.

"For students who’ve experienced trauma, we’ve increased the number of social workers and councilors. For students who are behind academically, we have double blocks of English and Math and extra supports during the school day. For teachers who’ve been in a system that has squelched their ability to be free and be autonomous, we’ve given them a lot of freedom and embedded collaborative time. So, we try to take every barrier that we can identify and create a structure to address it," he says.

Much of the responsibility for bringing young people up to speed academically falls on their teachers. Sean Banks is a physical education teacher at the school. He uses a term for himself and his colleagues: Care-rents. He says the students need to know, regardless of the lives they have at home, that they have caring adults in their lives.

"As long as you have a strong amount of mentors and people involved in your life, they can see the light and it gives them hope. And all you need is just a little bit of hope and you can just go from there," says Banks, who has worked at the school for 11 years. He’s committed to the community where he grew up. His hope and determination to see the school and the neighborhood improve is apparent.

"I came from the same neighborhood as these kids. I grew up on the West Side of Rochester, off Jefferson Avenue, Cady Street.  I had people in my neighbor, at my schools that influenced me. They let me know that this can be done. You can do it," says Banks.

18-year old high school senior, Tommy Haygood shows the same determination as Banks and Nelms do as he walks to school with his sister. He says headlines that highlight East’s problems have served to motivate him.

"It makes me want to do better and show that I can do everything that they said I can’t. You know. Be the best man I can be on my own," Haygood says.

Haywood says he’ll graduate this year and plans to study criminal justice at the College at Brockport. He wants to go into law enforcement. It’s the way he’d like to make his community a better place to live in the future.

"I want to make Rochester safer for my future kids and my nephews and nieces and my family," he says.

Superintendent Nelms says making sure the young people at his school succeed is a matter of life or death, both for that child and the community.